I should start at the beginning of the story of these knives. Inventor and entrepreneur, Richard Menefee decided to stage (work without pay in hopes of learning the trade) for six months in the kitchen of Michael's On Main in Soquel, California to improve his cooking skills (in much the same way Bill Buford did before writing Heat). From this experience, Menefee learned a couple hard truths - cooking in a commercial kitchen is some of the hardest and most demanding work around and those who choose to do so are generally not well compensated. Menefee found that most of the cooks and chefs could barely make their rent and afford daily necessities much less saving up for high quality tools of their trade. After his time at the restaurant, Rich decided to thank those he worked alongside of and learned from by doing what he does best. He designed a safe, comfortable, and sturdy knife bag, then manufactured a handful which he gave out as gifts. The bags were such a hit that everyone who got one started to provide feedback on how to make them even better. After several revisions, Menefee felt he had a product that culinary students, chefs and cooks might purchase.
As is true of all products, there's a target audience. The MAC knives I use and the Global knives that my wife uses are expensive and aimed at people with disposable income, executive chefs, and the cognoscenti. They are sharp, hold an edge supremely well, and not only look beautiful, but feel wonderful when using them. They are also around $100 each. The most popular German knives are in the same ballpark - $80 to $100 per knife, but are designed differently. Generally, they are heavier and less delicate. The thicker blade isn't suitable for holding an edge with an angle as narrow as the Japanese blades, but the heft of the knife helps cut through when razor sharpness cannot. Again, for students and cooks, it's a high price to ask for a quality tool. (Just a few months ago, I met a fishmonger at the headquarter Whole Foods in Austin who saved up for a year to buy his Shun knife - waiting until he felt like he had matured enough to take care of a knife as expensive and beautiful as a Shun.) There is a place for expensive tools - sometimes you have to pay for quality - but what if you can't afford it? Are you stuck with inferior products (like Chef's Mate from the grocery store or J.A. Henckels International that is sold as an affordable alternative to the overpriced world-famous Zwilling J.A. Henckels lines)? For years, I've been telling people that there are high-performance kitchen knives available for the masses with the Forschner Chef's Knife as one of my favorites. It is this market segment - affordable but high quality - that Saber Knives is trying to satisfy.
Over the last couple months, I've had the opportunity to test Menefee's hot dropped and fully forged Saber Knives, and I'm happy to say that here is another affordable knife that performs like its more expensive counterparts. I ran it through the same battery of tests that I performed in our Equipment & Gear: Chef's Knives Rated article and found it to be around the same cutting performance as Wusthof. There are some differences though. Each of the Saber Knives has a granton edge (divots are cut into the side of the blade to reduce the surface area that food like potatoes and cucumbers could stick to). That's every single knife (except the bread knife) - even the paring and utility knives. Why? I suppose it was a matter of "why not". The granton edge does work in reducing sticking, and it certainly doesn't hurt on the smaller knives. The santoku is a little larger than most santokus we've tested, but it's the first one that Tina has liked in terms of curvature and how it moves in her hand as she cuts. That's saying a lot given that we've tried a half a dozen santokus - some as expensive as $350.}?>
The bag that the set comes with is really a magnificent knife bag. I've been using a $40 Dexter-Russell bag for the last couple years and the design lets blades slide around during transportation. There's a strip of Velcro that's supposed to do something, but I'm not sure it works except at being annoying. I've resorted to buying knife blade protectors ($2-$5 each depending on material and size) for each of the knives I carry in the bag so I don't end up cutting myself. My bag is also soft and flexible which means I have to lie it down flat or risk having the knives slip out of their sleeves and pool at the bottom of the bag (knocking against each other as I pick up the bag again). It's ridiculous, but there was nothing better... until I opened up Menefee's bag. His bag is compact (but holds twelve knives, a cleaver, honing steel, and a pouch for other small tools), made of durable nylon (reinforced by stiff paper board), stores blades snugly and safely, has a heavy-duty zipper, and comfortable hand grip (as well as a detachable shoulder strap that doesn't need to be unclipped to open the bag unlike my Dexter-Russell bag).
The Saber knife bag works differently than most other knife bags - the blades are inserted into tight fitting sleeves (instead of the handles dropped into pockets), so much of the blade is covered and the rest of the edge is held snugly against the side of the bag. Additionally, nearly undetectable magnets embedded under the blade sleeves help keep the knives in place under normal transportation conditions. When I received the bag with knife samples, it had traveled halfway across the country via UPS. The box arrived beaten up and dirty (I'm living in a rural area right now and stuff seems to always come having tumbled in some dirt and dust). When I opened it, only a couple knives had slipped out of their sheaths, but the bag was still perfectly safe due to the protected cloth covers (which Velcro down snugly). Under normal use, I've not experienced any slipping or sliding of the blades.
|Knife bag after UPS shipping|
|Only two knives out of position after shipping|
Saber Knives are made of a blend of German steels and manufactured in China (the blades are completely hot drop forged - no welding of forged or stamped components or other funny stuff). A lot of stuff made in China is low quality, but there is a lot of stuff that is high quality (often coming out of the same factory). In the end, it depends on how much you want to pay for your manufactured good - the Chinese are happy to accommodate. Although the knives are more expensive to manufacture than many others made in China, Menefee feels that he can keep total cost down by keeping his staff lean (he doesn't have a secretary and writes his own letters), producing only two product lines (a set with the bag for professionals and a set with a block for home chefs - keeping down inventory and packaging costs), and sacrificing a bit of his profits. In the e-mail interviews that I've had with Menefee, he struck me as a man with a mission - focused from his time in the restaurant kitchen working alongside people less financially fortunate. In our conversations he keeps coming back to the need for affordable but quality tools. His current target? A street price around $300 for either set.
At $300, his home chef set will have a unique wood block (designed so you can see which blade you are about to draw), kitchen shears, honing steel, and the knives. As of my last correspondence, a variety of vendors will be carrying this set as production ramps up in the coming months. As vendor commits and details become available, I'll either update this article or post a comment with the information.
The Saber knife set is a deal and perfect for anyone starting out on a culinary career, getting into their first apartment, just learning to cook, or avid cooks who never got around to getting a set of high quality blades. The set costs half as much as similar quality knives (the only thing you don't get are bragging rights about the recognizable German company name and where they are manufactured), which makes them perfect for the individual who is more concerned about performance, practicality, and cost over prestige and status.
The set for the home will most likely include:
Two 3.5-in. paring knives
4.5-in. paring knife
5-in. French boning knife
5-in. tomato knife
6-in. utility knife
8-in. serrated bread knife
8-in. chef's knife
The professional/student set will most likely include:
5-in. French boning
8-in. chef's knife
8-in. serrated bread
10-in. ham slicer
10-in. chef's knife
Update (Oct 5, 2009): The knives should be available on Amazon.com in a couple days. Click here to go to the Amazon.com listing for Saber Knives professional set.
Update (Dec 7, 2009):Costco.com has begun to sell the Saber Knives Professional Knife Bag. At the time of this writing it is $55, which I think is a great price given how much other knife bags cost and how much better this one works.
Update (Dec 12, 2009): Mr. Menefee has informed me that after giving out something like a hundred knives, he has to stop the free knife promotion.
Update (January 11, 2009): Saber Knives has set up an online store for people to direct order from. They are also offering individual knives at $7 an inch (so an 8-in chef's knife would cost $56). In addition, if you order directly from them through this link, a portion of the sale will be be provided to Cooking For Engineers to help with the upkeep of the site and future articles. Saber Knives Store
Update (March 9, 2010): Due to abuse of the Costco return policy (people were buying the knife bag with paring knife, keeping the knife, and returning the bag to Costco - the Costco employees aren't well versed enough in their online merchandise to demand the knife back - which results in Saber eating the costs associated with returned merchandise an addition to the loss of a paring knife), free paring knives are no longer available with the knife bag. Buying a knife direct from Saber Knives is the best way to try one out if you don't want to commit to a set.
Update (April 2, 2010): Costco.com is now selling a knife set from Saber for $199 which comes with a knife block, chef's knife, bread knife, utility, santoku, tomato knife, paring knife, and eight steak knives. There is also a sharpener that is cleverly tucked away and held in place by a magnet at the base of the knife block.